The America dream

Can new British bands make it in the US, like Coldplay? Ed Caesar joins Editors and Maximo Park in Nashville to find out
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The Independent Culture

Nashville, Tennessee, the home of country and western, is an odd place for two bright new British outfits, Maximo Park and Editors, to be gigging. But they are here nonetheless, playing on the same bill as Nashville natives, The Features, and hoping to make an impression.

They will need some luck. In the days before the gig, several impromptu straw polls on the club-going populace of Nashville reveals little interest in the British nouvelle vague. "Who?", says one bartender in the Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar. "Editors", I reply. "They're a bit like Joy Division." "What kind of a name is Joy Division?" She has a point, but we're straying off course. Has she heard of any British bands? "Sure", she says, "Coldplay, REM."

Similar pop quizzes reveal similar indifference - and why would it be any different? This is Nashville, not Crouch End, and copies of the NME are a thin on the ground here. It's the reason most of the crowd for the gig have been shipped over from the UK by the organisers, Jack Daniel's. I just hope the bands know what they are up against.

"Oh yeah", says Tom Smith, the fey, all-in-black frontman of Editors. "We're not Garth Brooks." An understatement. Editors, a dark four-piece based in Birmingham, have plundered the early Eighties post-punk influences so beloved of many of Britain's (and America's) newest bands, and emerged with a gothic, swelling first album, The Back Room that has garnered interest amongst London's musical cognoscenti. But can it translate into stateside success?

"I don't know", continues Smith. "This show is a bit of a one off. We're going to come and give America a serious crack in the new year. It's a big market, and we'd love to do well here. But we're doing well in Europe and the UK at the moment, and it would be foolish to take our eyes off that at the moment."

"We've been trying to plot our next move," says Chris Urbanowicz, the guitarist. "We haven't been to Australia or Japan yet. Working out what to do next makes you realise how big the world is."

"And so many British bands come over to the States in tiny bursts and never really crack it," continues Smith. "It's very hard."

Why? "I suppose, it's because bands like us have to start all over again when we come here," says Smith. "And it's such a massive territory. So you'd want to spend nine months giving it a good go. But then if you do that, you've forgotten about England. And, probably, we'll also want to record another album. It's hard."

One aspect which is hard to ignore when considering Editors' attempts to become a global force, is that their brand of music, with its bleak lyrics and dystopian soundscapes, is a little exclusive. While that might play well in New York City, it's hard to see many farmhands whistling an Editors tune - a fact of which Smith is aware.

"I mean, I know what you're saying, but I don't think we try to be exclusive", says the frontman. "I think that some of our songs could cross over and be bigger hits. But it's not pop. And that doesn't appeal to people on mass. It appeals to studenty types and people you find in big cities. But we're just trying to make music for us, and if anyone likes it, that's a bonus."

Editors' attitude, though, is not for their evening bill-sharers Maximo Park. While Maximo Park's Mercury-nominated first album, A Certain Trigger, can be a little recherché they are refreshingly populist in approach.

"I honestly don't think we're an arty band," says Paul Smith. "We're certainly a band who thinks about our music. But we see ourselves as a pop group. 'Indie' doesn't enter my vocabulary when I'm describing us. Because although we're on an independent label, 'indie' has come to mean a lifestyle choice and a haircut more than anything. It has a mentality that says 'we're going to do what we want, and sod everyone else' - and I don't like that. We genuinely want to make music that's going to appeal to all sorts of people across the world."

Making that leap is going to be hard for a group like Maximo Park. They are tuneful and have an amiable, energetic stage-presence, but they are also unapologetically intelligent. "Signal and Sign", the first track on A Certain Trigger, for instance, originates in Smith's undergraduate course in semiotics.

But perhaps I am doing the band, and the American public, a disservice. The arty Franz Ferdinandhave made real in-roads into the American psyche, and, more importantly, their album charts. And Maximo Park have started to make an impression, too, on their tour supporting The Bravery, with huge responses in Vancouver and San Fransisco.

Maybe The Features have the answer. Their album, Exhibit A, with its 2005 take on a host of rock'n'roll and country influences, is playing well in their home state of Tennessee. The drummer and keyboardist, Rollum Haas and Parrish Yaw, debunk many of the myths surrounding the American music scene.

Is it hard to get a heartland American audience interested in art rock? "I don't think so," says Haas. "Generally, people in the South have similar music tastes to someone on the West Coast or in New York."

Really? So I'd find as many Interpol fans in Tennessee as I would in Boston? "Of course," rejoins Haas. "People like to pigeonhole things and generalise. But where you live has very little to do with what you get into, or what you end up liking. All of this damn music came out of the South in the first place. You could argue Tennessee is the birth of rock'n'roll. And now, if you look at these nowhere places in the MidWest, there are all these weird bands coming out of there. The Flaming Lips came out of Oklahoma.

"You have to look at it like this," he continues. "In New York City you've got a huge population. Obviously, then, you're going to get pockets of people who are into the same thing. But in a small town, there are still going to be those people. Per capita, I'd imagine there as many Strokes fans in Nowheresville, America as in New York."

Why, then, is it so difficult for British bands to make an impression in America? "Look at the size of the UK and the size of the US and you've got your problem. But there are also key divisions between the UK and the US markets. In Britain, bands seem to be able to ride the hype of a single in a way that's never going to happen in the US. You have to knock people out with an album here.

"There is also that question of audience. In America, you have a market saturated by commercial R&B. Audiences in Britain seem to have broader tastes, and to accept new things more than the average American fan does. If you look at the Billboard singles charts, there are songs which make top three in Britain that would have no chance here."

This summation of the crucial differences between the American and British scenes, seems to indicate that, while it may be more difficult for the current crop of British bands to make a mark in America, it need not necessarily be impossible. What may preclude many bands, who are fêted in Britain, from becoming household names across the pond, is something more basic - quality.

"Listen", says Haas. "I'm not saying I don't enjoy British art rock. But there are whole crop of bands in Britain that I'm enjoying, because I enjoy the bands they are pooling from. So, early Gang of Four, or Joy Division. But not everyone is a music nerd like me - they're not all going to get it." Is he talking about Editors? A smile suggests he is.

Both Maximo Park and Editors have mustered critical mass in Britain. Now, only time will tell if America will yield itself to their charms. Maximo Park seem better placed to launch an assault. Several Americans who had come to the gig from as far flung places as Atlanta and Miami agreed that "Maximo kicked Editors right off the stage". One suggested that Tom from Editors "should smile more."

Maybe he will soon. If either band can break America, reaping the acclaim and greenbacks that accompany cracking the world's most remunerative music market, you can bet your bottom dollar they'll be smiling.